Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

The Case for Prudential Standing

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

The Case for Prudential Standing

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION .................... 727



A. The Text and History of the Constitution do not Support "Constitutional" Standing .................... 733

B. The Supreme Court has Repeatedly Justified the "Constitutional" Standing Requirements in Prudential Terms .................... 736

1. Standing Enables Better Judicial Decision-Making .................... 737

2. Standing Conserves Judicial Resources ............. 740

3. Standing Reduces Conflict Between the Judiciary and the Political Branches .................. 742



Standing is an immensely powerful judicial doctrine that sharply limits the classes of individuals who may bring a lawsuit in federal court. As currently understood, standing erects a variety of constitutional and non-constitutional, "prudential" barriers to any would-be plaintiff. On the constitutional side, a plaintiff must show that he has suffered an injury-in-fact that was caused by the defendant's action and that can be redressed by a favorable judicial decision.1 On the prudential side, the plaintiff must show that his or her injury is within the zone of interests that the statute or constitutional provision at issue is meant to protect.2 Prudential standing also prohibits plaintiffs from asserting generalized grievances or seeking to vindicate a third party's legal rights.3

This Article contends that the line between constitutional and prudential standing should be erased. Instead, all standing requirements should be deemed prudential. There are several reasons for this. First, the text of the U.S. Constitution and the history of its drafting provide no support for the allegedly constitutional standing requirements. Second, when the Supreme Court has sought to justify these "constitutional" standing requirements over the years, it has repeatedly relied on prudential justifications. For instance, the Court has noted how the "constitutional" standing requirements improve judicial decision-making, conserve judicial resources, and reduce conflict between the judiciary and the political branches.4 These are all worthy goals, but they are prudential goals, related to wise and efficient judicial administration. They are not mandated by the Constitution.

Recognizing that all standing requirements are prudential would have significant consequences because it is well-settled that Congress may waive prudential standing requirements by passing expansive citizen-suit provisions. Thus, when Congress passes such a provision, clearly indicating that it wants the federal courts to hear a certain class of cases brought by a certain class of plaintiffs, the courts should obey Congress's directive. Courts should not frustrate the will of Congress - and, by extension, the will of the American people - by invoking "constitutional" standing requirements that are really just prudential.

This point is particularly important in the context of environmental litigation. The injuries that would-be plaintiffs may suffer from illegal pollution, habitat destruction, and other environmental violations are often uncertain and conjectural. Moreover, given the complex cause-and-effect chains at work in natural ecosystems, it is often difficult for plaintiffs to prove that a specific defendant caused their injury or that a judicial decision against that defendant will redress the injury. Thus, under traditional analysis, environmental cases are commonly, and understandably, dismissed for lack of standing. However, where Congress has indicated that it wants the federal courts to hear these environmental cases, despite plaintiffs' difficulties in showing standing, the courts have no reason to ignore Congress's directive.

This Article proceeds in three parts. …

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